Eric Harland, the drummer with the fierce alive sound, is no longer just a star ascendant. He’s in high demand. At just 36 he has performed on more than 200 albums, has multiple Grammy nominations, and is kind of a big deal.
And yet, he makes a Tuesday night at the Street Theatre feel like a very small and intimate place. It’s not often that you can describe drumming as “intimate” but Harland has a touch and finesse that allows him to create supremely delicate moments with full drums. He can hold the entire crowd on the tiny, jewel-toned turn of a cymbal and then switch into an imperious rush of beats and colours that fills the room.
Harland isn’t a rock-star type. His name might be on the poster but he cuts an unassuming figure behind his drum kit in the centre of a dimly lit stage. He starts with some small-talk about how many vowels we skip in the pronunciation of Can-bra, introduces the band, tells us that we’re going on a musical journey, and they’re right in to it.
Here he’s surrounded by his band, Taylor Eigsti on piano, Julian Lage on guitar, Harish Raghavan on bass and Walter Smith III on tenor sax. It’s Raghavan that I feel most sorry for. He’s tasked with trying to keep up with Harland’s virtuosic groove and you can see that he’s right at the limit of his abilities. Even his double bass struggles – requiring constant retuning. It’s a stark contrast to Harland, whose playing is as effortless as it is extraordinary. You know you’re watching someone special when the whole band turns to watch him play a solo.
They don’t stop playing until intermission, seamlessly segueing between four tracks from Harland’s two albums Voyager: Live at Night and Vipassana. The transitions between pieces are barely detectable – the band just seems to find a new melody and start playing around with it.
Harland’s sound alternates between Miles Davis cool jazz through to a higher energy Herbie Hancock style fusion. But it’s all those points in between that are more interesting. Describing this guy in terms of genre seems pointless – his grooves can last for anything from two seconds to 20 minutes and touch everything from the birth of jazz to hip-hop. Most of all, he has an outstanding ear. Good drummers can rotate between different grooves, but Harland manages to completely transform the aesthetic of the ensemble from moment to moment. His drum kit seems to expand and contract under the sticks, and with it the whole ensemble.
It’s the same after intermission – four more conjoined pieces with a slightly higher energy and tempo. The encore is Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, one of the tracks on their Vipassana album completing a musical journey that has meandered from meditation to exhilaration.